Días de los Muertos

With a resonant voice as grand as the broad expanse of land around it, the grandfather clock in the great room tolled the hour. It was a sound felt in the bones as much as heard, its bass voice a mournful counterpoint to the delicate chimes of the mantle clock. Out of habit, Scott counted the strokes nine, ten, eleven o'clock. Although he was exhausted, Scott had not slept soundly. In the next room the ropes that held Johnny's feather tick creaked as he shifted restlessly in bed. No sooner had the clock finished marking the hour than Johnny's feet hit the floor. There was a rustle of fabric, then his bedroom door opened and closed. Scott continued to listen as Johnny's foot falls sounded down the hallway and the stairs until he heard the front door of the hacienda open and close.

Rising from his own bed, Scott pushed aside the curtain to look out onto the courtyard below. He half expected his brother to head towards the stables. He knew Johnny often sought the company of his beloved palomino when some worry made sleep impossible. But instead of turning towards the barn, Johnny walked in the opposite direction, across the open field to the solitary oak that stood near the northern fence. There was only one thing in that corner of the property, and Scott was curious about his brother's purpose

Dressing quickly Scott slipped out of his room, down the stairs and out the front door as quietly as Johnny had, intent on following his brother and hoping the younger man would not be offended. He slowed his pace as he approached the oak. Beneath the tree's outstretched branches was a tiny plot of ground neatly enclosed by a white picket fence. Even though it contained no Lancers, Murdoch had intended this location as a family cemetery. Most of those buried in the neatly tended graves were ranch workers, their wives and even their children. Teresa's father had been laid to rest in the far eastern corner, the site marked by a marble headstone. Murdoch was a good patron if nothing else. He took care of the people who worked for him. Walking as softly as he could, Scott approached, cautious not to startle his brother.

"No need to sneak up on me," Johnny said from behind the oak where he sat leaning against the wizened tree's trunk. "I heard ya comin' the minute ya walked out the front door,"

Scott was somewhat embarrassed at having been caught 'sneaking' and was glad Johnny could not see the blush he felt heat his face. "I Didn't mean to be sneaky. I couldn't sleep and when I heard you leave the house I was curious."

Johnny sighed. "We need to work on your sneaking skills."

Scott still stood outside the gate of the little white fence, unsure whether his presence would be welcome. "I'll leave if you want to be alone."

"Ya may as well have a seat. It's a nice night."

Scott stepped inside the gate, cautious not to walk on any of the graves out of respect for the deceased. Slowly he lowered himself to the ground leaning back against the rough bark of the tree trunk. They sat for several minutes in silence, Scott uncertain what to say now that he had joined his brother.

Johnny resolved the issue by asked matter-of-factly. "Do you believe in ghosts?"

Scott was caught off guard by the question and he thought a moment before he answered. He had grown up in a house that had more rooms than the hotel in Green River. Rooms that echoed with the voices of unseen inhabitants long dead but very much alive to a lonely little boy with a vivid imagination. Every room in the house had at least one ghost. Some had more. Some had been his personal friends. One had been the mother he had never known.

"I did. When I was little," Scott said.

"Did they scare you?"

Scott wondered where Johnny was headed with his line of questions but decided to humor his new found brother. "Yes. A few of them did. Others I thought of as friends."

"My big brother had imaginary friends?" Scott could see the white flash of Johnny's teeth as he grinned broadly and for a moment Scott doubted the wisdom of his revelation. He expected Johnny to burst into laughter, but the younger man surprised him. The smile vanished replaced by a solemn expression. Johnny understood loneliness and innately sensed there was more than one way to be alone, even when surrounded by the familiar.

"And do you now?" Johnny asked. "Believe in 'em?" His voice was low, as though he were in church and knew he should not be speaking.

Scott shrugged. Should he explain to this man, who was almost a stranger, how many ghosts lived in the nightmares that haunted him in the dark of night? Apparitions that came as mangled bodies lying twisted and grotesque on the battlefields of Virginia. Or as soulless eyes staring from gaunt, half starved faces in the cold, dank hell that was Libby prison. Yes, there were many, many ghosts. "I haven't given it much thought recently," he finally said.

Johnny sat quietly, fiddling with the long blades of grass that grew around the base of the oak. Their breathing sounded heavy in the stillness of the night. Even the lowing of cattle, an ever-present concerto of background music Scott had become accustomed to, was conspicuous by its absence. As though the beasts were waiting in hushed anticipation for something.

"Do you know what day it is? What night?" Johnny's whispered question was as hushed as the sounds from the herd. Not out of fear or vigilance but out of reverence.

"October 31st," Scott answered without thinking.

"La víspera de todos los Santos."

Scott waited for the translation. Johnny always did whenever the Spanish slipped out and he saw Scott's blank look in return. Oh, he was trying to learn his brother's native tongue, but he had a long way to go before he would be fluent. He saw Johnny turn to look at him.

"All Hallow's Eve," Johnny said. "The vigil before the feast days of All Saints and All Souls. Días de los Muertos. The Days of the Dead."

"That sounds ominous," Scott said. He was not quite sure what response was expected.

Johnny chuckled. A small sound deep in his throat. "Just the opposite. It's actually kind of a happy celebration."

"Celebrating the dead?"

"Celebrating loved ones who have passed on," Johnny said as he nodded. Scott waited patiently for his brother to continue.

"There's parties. And parades in the bigger cities in Mexico. And sometimes firecrackers. And food. Even when things were really lean my momma would set an extra place at the table. And put out food for the departed souls. You know, her parents and people like that. Then she'd smack my fingers if I tried to taste any of it." Johnny was quiet for a few moments, contemplating the memory. "The dead always got a good meal. And sometimes we'd go to the cemetery and leave offerings to help the repentant souls get to heaven."

Somehow, he had not imagined his younger brother, or more precisely, the man with Johnny Madrid's reputation, to be a spiritual person. "So that's why you're sitting here?" Scott asked

It was Johnny's turn to sit in silent thought before answering. "When my mother died, there was no money. No money to bury her with. No casket. No fancy headstone. The sheriff ended up burying her in the paupers' field. I was too ashamed to visit her grave. The old wives believe that on All Hallow's Eve the souls of the dead rise to walk the earth and visit old friends and family. For the first few years after she passed, on la víspera de todos los Santos I'd visit whatever boot hill or church graveyard was handy. Seemed like the right place to be. I was hopin' and prayin' she would come back. That I could see her one more time. But hopin' and prayin' didn't get me nowhere. So I stopped."

"But you're here tonight. In a cemetery." Scott said

"Ever notice how quiet a cemetery is? It's a good place for a man to think. 'Bout who he is and what he's done."

And who he wants to become, Scott added silently. "What was she like? Your mother."

He heard Johnny's soft chuckle again. "Ahh, she was beautiful. Hair, black like coal. Her eyes crinkled when she smiled. Her laugh was so happy. But I was a little boy. All little boys think their momma's are beautiful."

How did Scott tell Johnny he envied the short time he had had with his mother. That he would give anything for even the dimmest memory of his own, to know where she was buried even if it were a paupers' field. Harlan had alluded that her burial place was somewhere in California but not on Lancer owned ground. It was a topic he had yet to broach with his father.

"She only had one fault," Johnny said breaking Scott's morose reverie. "She taught me to hate a man I didn't even know."

Scott heard a note of regret in Johnny's voice that surprised him. The arguments he had had with Murdoch since his arrival were fast approaching legendary proportion. Scott kept expecting his younger brother to bolt for the hills, but he had stayed. Just as Scott had stayed. The need for a family and place to belong more powerful than any disagreement they might have with their father.

"And when do these spirits rise?" Scott asked, trying to deflect Johnny's mood before it darkened.

"Midnight. Until dawn."

Scott was not a strongly religious person, though he did show proper respect for those who were. His grandfather, always professed to be a man of God, but had very little in his personal philosophy or business practice that testified to that fact. And he had taken little time to set an example for his impressionable grandson. So church going had been more a mechanical action to impress Harlan's business rivals than an act of faith. Still, Scott had to admit he was intrigued by this notion of the spirits of the dead rising on All Hallow's Eve.

"So, do you intend to keep watch tonight?" he asked.

Johnny laughed softly once again, as though the notion were amusing. "Maybe."

"Do you mind if I keep you company?"

Johnny thought for only a moment. "Company would be nice for a change."

Settling more comfortably against the trunk of the tree, Scott relaxed, and the two brothers lapsed into a companionable silence. Occasionally, in the distance, he could hear a coyote, or the soft hoot of an owl. The world seemed calm, almost expectant. On the horizon the moon had begun to rise. Full, and tinted orange, it lit the wispy clouds around it with a soft amber glow. Closing his eyes, Scott listened to the sound of Johnny's breathing, heard him shift position until he was lying on the ground. From the open windows of the hacienda he heard the grandfather clock begin to strike and out of habit, he counted the strokes. Twelve. Midnight. Well, spirits, he thought, now is your time. Feeling more content than he had in years he allowed himself relax, and before he realized he had drifted off to sleep.

It was a dream that had haunted him when he was a boy. Of the fair haired woman in the photo on Grandfather's desk. His mother. She was beautiful, though he had never known the sound of her laughter, or seen the way her eyes lit up when she looked at him. She had always been real in his dreams. Real but out of reach. No matter how hard he had tried he could never catch her, or hold her hand, or hear her voice, or feel her arms encircle him in a warm embrace. Just as she seemed real in this moment. Her hair was loose, streaming down her back, lifted by the wind and she was dressed head to foot in flowing white robes that swirled and danced with the air around her. She smiled as he had always imagined she would smile. And for the first time she spoke. "I'm so glad you came home, Scott. My dear boy. This is where you have always belonged. This is the life you were meant to live. The life I wanted for you. For all of us. Take care of your father for me. I love you both so." With those words she reached out and brushed her long slender fingers through the hair on his forehead, then touched his cheek, and he heard a sigh of contentment.

Scott sat upright with a start, his hand going to his cheek where cool fingers had rested only moments before.

"You okay?" Johnny's voice was muzzy with sleep, and he barely opened his eyes as he looked at his brother.

For a second Scott considered telling Johnny about the dream and the feather light touch of fingers on his face, but in the end he shrugged and said, "Nothing. I thought something brushed against my face, but it was only the wind."

Johnny opened his eyes wider, staring at Scott. "There is no wind."

(end)